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Ilya Ehrenburg’s Story

Memoirs: 1921-1941

by Ilya Ehrenburg
World, 543 pp., $6.95

The title of Ehrenburg’s memoirs in the original Russian is People, Years, Life, a title intentionally disjointed to serve notice that his work is not to be taken as history, but only as a collection of memories, unsystematically recorded by a private individual. Implicitly, it is the first of many disclaimers interspersed throughout his narrative, from one at its very beginning—“I suppose it will be a book about myself rather than about my epoch…I am not an impartial chronicler”—to that toward the end of this second volume (the first came out in 1962), in which Ehrenburg attempts to explain his silence during the purge trials in Moscow: “Even now I can write only what I have seen for myself…I cannot analyze the epoch nor present a large historical canvas.” The Russian edition of this book contains a brief preface, which does not appear in the English translation, where Ehrenburg once again underscores the “extreme subjectivity” of his work: “I want to emphasize once more that this book is the story of my life, of the search, the errors and the discoveries of a single individual” that makes “no pretense whatever to giving the history of an epoch.” “All books,” he had already said, “are confessions, and a book of memoirs is a confession without any attempt to cloak oneself in the shadow of an invented hero”; and this too he now repeats: his book is not a chronicle, but a confession.

In fairness to the author, these reiterations, however annoying they may be—and they have the effect of a false note struck with jarring insistence—must be taken seriously. Let his book be judged, as he requests, not as history but as confession. But what is meant by “confession”? Confession presupposes a confrontation of a man with his conscience, an acknowledgement of error, accompanied by a sense of guilt. And where in Mr. Ehrenburg’s memoirs is there either guilt or conscience? Self-exculpations there are in plenty, but these are attempts to justify himself in the eyes of others, not in his own eyes. He has been hurt, as he admits ruefully, by unjust accusations, sometimes he has been made “furious” by them; but he is sure of his righteousness, of his place as an artist “not in the rear but in the van,” of his stand “on the battlefield” in “the struggle with fascism.” Unfortunate though it is that Mr. Ehrenburg must defend himself against narrow partisanship and violent abuse, he would be more believable, and less pathetic, did he not protest so much, did he not want so much to ingratiate himself: “I should like to bring to life, with loving eyes, some petrifications of the past—and also to come closer to the reader”; and he would be more convincing were he dealing with lesser themes.

But Ehrenburg has been involved in the most tragic events of our time. He witnessed Hitler’s rise in Germany and his conquest of France, he took part in the Spanish Civil War, and he was in Russia during the Great Trials. He gives eye-witness reports of historic events; and the names of his friends and acquaintances add up to a small encyclopedia of twentieth-century intellectual history. Yet he apologizes for his omissions: “I remember some people and have totally forgotten others”; “There are many great artists and writers of whom I have not written, because I did not know them personally or did not know them sufficiently.” Clearly, these professions of subjectivity, privacy, and impressionism are meant to disarm potential critics: how shall a man be blamed for not having done what he never intended to do? He writes from memory, he says, having never kept a diary, and “memory is like the headlights of a car at night, which falls now on a tree, now on a hut, now on a man.” So much depends on chance! And yet Western critics are unkind enough to detect an extraordinary selectivity in the headlights of Ehrenburg’s car, which somehow never seem to fall, as Isaac Deutscher has pointed out, on those who still remain “unpersons” in the USSR; search the pages for Trotsky’s name, for example, and you will search in vain. Soviet writers, on the other hand, blame Ehrenburg for other reasons. Russian editions of his books are equipped with editorial prefaces, and the one to the present volume calls attention to his “deviations from historic truth” and his ideological lapses, urging readers to adopt “a critical attitude toward his work.” The Western reader requires no such warning; he will hardly worry about Ehrenburg’s “ideology,” but unless he is very naïve, he is more than likely to be shocked by flaws of another kind.

The reader is bound to be impressed by many vivid pages: graphic glimpses of street scenes and battle scenes, portraits of individuals, sharp summaries of social conditions—such very moving portraits as those of the poets Robert Desnos and Peretz Markisch, both of whom perished at the hands of the Nazis, or that of the dedicated Russian artist Robert Falk; by sketches of Ernst Toller, Babel, Hemingway. He will be shaken by such incidents as the following, which took place in a Russian town during the NEP period:

In the refreshment room at the station hung a notice: “He that does not work neither shall he eat.” Passengers from the sleeping-car were dining at the small tables. Here, too, wandered homeless children in the hope of scraps. A passenger handed one girl his plate with some bits of meat and gravy: “Here, gobble it up!” A waiter…ran up, tore the plate out of the child’s hands and threw the pieces of meat and potatoes all over the rags she was wearing…The little girl cried and ate hastily.

Shaken by snapshots of the Spanish Civil War:

Sirens were wailing in Madrid. I had difficulty in making my way along one of the streets…A house had been sliced open by a bomb and the rooms looked like a stage set. An old woman picked out from a heap of rubble a large framed photograph of a bridal couple, covered it carefully with a shawl and carried it away. It was raining…

Jaén was very badly bombed. I witnessed a scene there that has remained an agonizing memory even after the sights of the last war and everything we have seen since. A bomb splinter tore off the head of a little girl. The mother went mad—she would not give up the child’s body and crawled about looking for the head and screaming: “It’s not true! She’s alive!”

In a street in Jaén I stood watching a old potter who was making jugs. All around were demolished houses, but he unhurriedly kneaded his clay.

And he will be roused by such summary images from the past as this one of Berlin in 1921:

It was in a beerhall in the Alexanderplatz that I first heard the name of Hitler…The mark continued to fall…On the wall of a good bourgeois home, with a notice by the front door saying “Nur für Herren,” I saw the chalked slogan “Death to the Jews.” Everything was colossal: prices, abuse, despair…One poet declared: “One must begin by simultaneously killing ten million people in different countries”…On the screens of suburban cinemas Dr. Caligari presented his insane antics. In one day nine suicides were registered in Berlin. A magazine was brought out called Friendship, devoted to the theory’ and practice of homosexuality.

Ehrenburg has long been a semi-professional photographer. And in defending himself against a charge of bias in a book of his photographs, he has remarked that here, as in his writing, he “took only those pictures which expressed [his] thoughts and feelings.” His writing is indeed at its best as the verbal equivalent of close-ups and photo-montage, and he is surely right in objecting to constant directives: “You’re not photographing the proper thing, comrade. Turn to the left, there’s a suitable model for you with a smile of excellent quality.” Apart from its pictorial effect, his writing is undistinguished; it is shapeless and prolix, even though he prides himself on his “telegraphic style,” modeled, he believes, on Babel’s and Hemingway’s.

As for his reflections on life, these are as jejune as his pictures of it are colorful. And here, too, Ehrenburg would forestall criticism by open-hearted “confession.” He owns that up to the age of forty he had not found himself but “turned and tossed this way and that,” and finds it “quite embarrasing to confess that between 1922 and 1931” he wrote nineteen books, but explains that “this haste was dictated by inner confusion and not by ambition,” that “inusing up paper I used up myself,” and though he is inclined to blame this confusion, on the times, he ingenuously remarks that he may be wrong. “After all, I did meet writers who gave full expression to their thoughts, their hopes, their passions—Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Valéry.” At the age of forty, in 1931, under the impact of two visits to Germany, he suddenly realized “that one ought to take one’s place in the fighting ranks.” (Parenthetically, one might note that this was the time when the doctrine of Socialist Realism was being formulated in Russia, to be fully shaped and proclaimed at the Writers’ Congress of 1934.) Ehrenburg’s artless admission is enlightening, but hardly disarming. Once a writer who can compare himself with the greatest has “found himself,” even though the finding was rather late in coming, one is entitled to expect something more from him than Ehrenburg provides. He tells us, for example, that the English love seclusion, that the French are gregarious, that the Swedes seem “cold and reserved” but that one can find warm-hearted men among them, and that, in sum, men of different nationalities are both alike and different. Having discovered this truth in his restless journeyings over Europe, Ehrenburg “was ceaselessly, painfully thinking not about the characteristic features of this or that people, but about the character of the times,” and this brought him to the triumphant conclusion that the times were full of discrepancies: “on the one hand, the swift progress of the natural sciences, of the development of technology, of the triumph of Socialist ideas and, on the other, of the spiritual impoverishment of human beings,” on the one hand, “extraordinarily complicated machines,” on the other, “incredibly primitive men with the prejudices and the crude reactions of cavemen,”—a “spiritual impoverishment” for which America, with her “simplification of the inner world,” was in large part responsible. Ever since the First World War America had not only dominated Europe economically, she had infected it with a kind of moral paralysis that destroyed all capacity to resist the “cult of force…nationalism and racism,” which brought in their wake “torture…concentration camps… portraits of dictators and epidemics of denunciations.”

And Russia? Was Russia also infected by American simplifications? This brings us to the most revealing section of Ehrenburg’s memoirs. Although from 1921 to 1941 Ehrenburg was mostly abroad, he was by no means cut off from Russia. From 1932 to 1939 he served as foreign correspondent of Izvestia; he saw numbers of men who came from Russia, and himself traveled there half a dozen times. In 1937 he was in Spain, photographing the Civil War and sending reports of it to Moscow. Harboring but one thought, “victory in Spain,” he was somewhat disturbed by ominous hints dropped by his countrymen and by certain disquieting items in Pravda, so that his “heart was often troubled.” Once “a large, good-natured woman, the wife of a responsible party worker” was suddenly recalled from Valencia to Moscow, and when Ehrenburg telephoned to find out what had happened, his daughter, instead of answering his question, spoke of the fine weather in Moscow. About this time, Ehrenburg received the news that he was awarded the Order of the Red Star, and in December he went to Russia, intending to return in a fortnight. He was obliged, however, to stay six months.

Despite all he had heard and read, he was unprepared for what he found. Told in whispers, behind closed doors, of the fates of men he knew, “But why him?” he would ask increduously, and would be told: “Pilnyak has been to Japan, Tretyakov often met foreign writers, Natasha Stolyarova had just come from France.” Ehrenburg was “totally bewildered,” he felt “lost, no, that is not the word—crushed.” Often he would see the Meyerholds. Meyerhold’s theater had been shut down as “alien,” his wife had “had a nervous breakdown.” Sergey Prokofiev, “unhappy, even grim” said “one must work, work is now the only salvation,” and Babel joked: “Today a man talks freely only with his wife—at night, with the blanket pulled over his head.” One day the radio announced “that Gorky’s murderers were being put on trial, and that doctors had been involved in the murder”; Babel rushed in and tapped his forehead: they were insane. No one understood what was happening. “I realized that people were being accused of crimes which they had not and could not have committed, and I asked myself and others: why, what for? No one could give me an answer. We were completely at sea.” But everyone, including Ehrenburg, considered Yezhov, not Stalin, responsible for the crimes.

Being “completely at sea,” “crushed,” “bewildered,” Ehrenburg refused Izvestia’s repeated invitation to “write articles about the trials, to compare ‘the fifth Column’ in Spain with those who were labeled ‘enemies of the people’,” refused on the ground that he “could write only about things [he] knew well.” And so, during the whole of that time, the prolific Ehrenburg “wrote only two articles.” He talked on Spain “in fifty different places,” saw friends, received the Red Star “at the chancery of the Supreme Soviet,” and wrote Stalin asking permission to return to Spain. He had to write twice. His first request went unanswered. He was “acting foolishly,” he realized, in writing the second time, but at the end of April permission was granted. “Why did that happen? I shall never know.”

Why did that happen?” A more relevant question might be: how was it that Ehrenburg, an honored citizen of the Soviet State, the recipient of one of its high decorations, who, moreover, thought Stalin innocent of crime and knew himself sufficiently important to address him personally, how was it that he made no move to use his influence on behalf of those who were being destroyed before his eyes; or if this required too much courage, how was it that, at least, with his long experience as a journalist, he made not the slightest attempt to get at the bottom of what was going on? And when he asked for permission to leave, did he really believe he was more needed in Spain than in Russia? These questions were not asked. But Ehrenburg’s answer is clearly indicated. In Russia he was “lost.” In Spain he was exterminating Fascism at its root. “In 1942 I wrote an article in which I said: ‘Long before it attacked our country, Fascism interfered with our life and crippled the destiny of our people.’ But even in the days of which I am speaking, I could not dissociate our own misfortunes from the evil news in the West.” Nevertheless, and however ungenerously, one cannot fail to recall at this juncture the idea that had occurred to Ehrenburg in Spain before he left for Russia: “I read the papers and thought: well, I really am lucky—it’s much simpler to be bombed; at least you know who’s your enemy and who’s your friend.”

It took Ehrenburg a long time to see what was what in Russia. When in Paris in 1939 he heard of the Russo-German Pact: “My reason made me accept what had happened as inevitable, but my heart rejected it.” He wept for France, and returned to Russia in the summer of 1940. There, so long as the Germans and Russians were allies, he had a rather hard time of it. He was writing The Fall of Paris, but was not allowed to use the word “Fascist,” and his articles were sometimes rejected. But with a telephone call on the 24th of April, 1941, his fortunes changed. “Comrade Stalin wishes to speak to you,” said a voice from the Secretariat. Comrade Stalin asked Comrade Ehrenburg whether in his novel he intended “to denounce the German Fascists.” Comrade Ehrenburg replied that the term was forbidden him, to which Comrade Stalin retorted “jocularly: ‘Just go on writing, you and I will try to push the third part through.’ ” All was now well with the novel, but Comrade Ehrenburg was “very gloomy”; he realized that this telephone call was “not a matter of literature,” but a warning that war was at hand. From now on Ehrenburg was greatly in demand. And on the 22nd of June he was invited to report to the Political Department of the Armed Forces. “Have you any military rank?” he was asked. “I said that I held no rank but had a calling. I would go wherever they wanted to send me and do whatever they ordered me to do.” On this heroic note Ehrenburg concludes this part of his memoirs. The story, however, is not yet finished, and in the final book he promises: “to express my thoughts about Stalin, about the reason for our errors, about all the things that weigh so heavily on the hearts of every individual of my generation.”

But is Ehrenburg the man to take upon himself the confession of a whole generation? Is his heart really bent under a “heavy weight”? Was he not closer to the truth about himself when in the first part of his memoirs he wrote: “As a child, I heard the saying: ‘Those who remember everything have a hard life’; later I found out for myself that the age was too difficult for any one to carry a load of memories”? Ehrenburg knows how to forget as well as to remember, and he knows even better how to refer to his age, the cruel and capricious age to which he belongs, the errors that may be imputed to himself. He is avowedly, and conveniently, a Determinist, having seen “how much our choice is shackled by historical circumstances, by our environment, by the feeling of responsibility for others, by that social climate which cannot but make a man’s voice louder, or on the contrary mute it and alter all proportions.” “Many of my contemporaries,” he has written, “have found themselves under the wheels of time. I have survived—not because I was stronger or more far-seeing but because there are times when the fate of a man is not like a game of chess, but like a lottery.” Mr. Ehrenburg is too modest. He obviously plays an excellent game of chess. Nor does he consistently disavow his strength. He quotes himself often and at length—articles, novels, poems—not just to revive the years he is remembering but to exhibit his acumen and foresight: and when he acknowledges his reason’s faults, the sorrow of his heart atones for them. He sees himself as a man of courage, principle, and patriotism, who has always been “firm in the knowledge that no matter how much [he] was saddened or revolted by this or that thing” in his own country, he “could never dissociate” himself “from a people that was the first to have the courage to put an end to the world of greed, of hypocrisy, of racial and national arrogance…”

If his voice is loud, his temper shrewd, and his mind limited, it is his age that has made them such. And though he is willing to admit that “it may have been [his] own fault” that he “lived on a dozen planes at once, dissipating [his] energies, always in a hurry,” he tends to “put it down to the times.” For his own writing, at any rate, he requires turmoil: “To write about the years when there were no mobilizations, no battles, no concentration camps, when people died in their beds, and to write about them interestingly, is very difficult.” Ehrenburg’s nature craves excitement and his age has granted it to him in abundance. Is it to innocence or muddleheadedness that one should ascribe the shoddiness of his thinking? Hardly to innocence. Ehrenburg is nothing if not shrewd; and the mental confusion of one so astute as he, the clever dullness, the showy triteness must be laid at the door not of intellectual, but of moral, inadequacy. It amounts simply to this: Ehrenburg is not big enough to do justice to the tragic events that have absorbed him. Bright, vain, energetic, and frivolous, he cannot rise to the level of the people, years, and life that are his theme. That is the pity of it.

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